The Gulf Between Us
Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here’s the unedited version:
The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.
Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.
A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.
The phantom censorship drama may help sales, but does a disservice to Bedell, whose novel treats the Gulf with affection and understanding. The protagonist, Annie Lester, is single parent to three unruly sons in the fictional emirate of Hawar. Annie thinks her eldest son’s wedding is the most disruption she has a right to expect, but another son has a secret to reveal, and her childhood boyfriend – now a sexy film star – has arrived at the reception. One thing leads very cleverly, with great pace, to another, until Annie’s future in the emirate, and the safety of her sons, hangs in the balance. The story unfolds in the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The metaphorical temperature constantly rises.
Hawar (the word means ‘discussion’) is obviously based on Bahrain, with its pearl divers, Sunni-Shia tensions and barely concealed royal disputes, but is a recognisable portrait of any Gulf state: – “an affluent bubble in a cloudless sky, confected in a few decades from desert subsistence into cities, hotels and high rises.” Bedell skillfully sketches the enbubbled communities of the Gulf – Western, Arab, Asian – and their internal stratifications of class, status and tribe. She is as good on human commonalities as she is at communal distinctions.
Her treatment of attitudes to gays is balanced and accurate. Her homophobes are as likely to be Anglos as Arabs. Indeed the book’s serious theme is prejudice of all varieties, secular and religious, political and sexual, anti-Arab and anti-Western. The novel has a generosity of spirit which the allegations of censorship do not.
Most impressively, “The Gulf Between Us” offers a living breathing portrait of a family, not just the individual characters but also their continual, understated effect on each other. In considering the ramifications of each event on her sons as well as herself, Annie sounds like an entire family talking. In plot terms, her romance is nicely interwoven with her sons’ ardent adventures. The novel has stirring climaxes and endless twists, and is all gripping stuff, even if comic realism slides into genre formula towards the unconvincing end. But at its worst it’s still great escapism: light, finely-observed, funny and reflective.